It’s a cliché to call Eddie Vedder “angsty”, but it made a lot of sense for a long time. With Pearl Jam, the frontman mourned for the bullied (Jeremy’), seethed with the oppressed (‘W.M.A.’) and defended the abused (‘Daughter’). He couldn’t even accept the band’s Best Hard Rock Performance Grammy without deriding the event in 1996. Vedder was the forsaken son, haunted by the father he never knew. It’s a tale as old as time, told anew through ‘Alive’, ‘Release’, ‘Better Man’ and more Pearl Jam standards.
‘Earthling’, his third solo album and first in 11 years, represents the end of that chase. Traversing musical styles, the record’s through-line is its allegiance to fatherhood itself; most of these tunes sound less like classic Vedder, and more like the music that raised him. The synth-driven ‘Invincible’ offers an ethereal dose of U2, ‘Long Way’ is a deliberate Tom Petty imitation (featuring Petty’s keyboardist Benmont Tench) and ‘The Dark’ could be a ‘Born in the USA’ B-side. Dismiss this as uninspired “dad rock”, or embrace it as a dad making the music he’d want to hear.
If you could, wouldn’t you bring in Stevie Wonder, Elton John, and Ringo Starr to guest on your record? Their guest spots – on, respectively, the frenetic ‘Try’, instant singalong ‘Picture’ and the poignant ‘Mrs. Mills’ – may veer into pastiche, but they work brilliantly because Vedder, 57, is audibly enamoured with his collaborators. Producer Andrew Watt, 31 and a Pearl Jam super-fan, helps his own musical father figure add some worthy deep cuts to a long catalogue. Watt’s production is sometimes over-eager, but you can’t get enough of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Chad Smith on drums.
Less successful are two tracks that find Vedder trying to recreate different sides of Pearl Jam: ‘Power of Right’, which rushes through forgettable riffage, and the maudlin, overlong ‘The Haves’ (among other faults, Vedder rhymes “above” with… “above”). ‘Rose of Jericho’ and ‘Brother the Cloud’ fare far better and might’ve been reserved for Pearl Jam – especially ‘Cloud’, with deeply affecting lyrics that evoke Chris Cornell’s tragic suicide.
As ‘Earthling’ fades out, Vedder’s late, estranged father, Edward Severson Jr., croons “I’ll be on my way”. Vedder discovered the tape a few years ago, and had never before heard his father sing. When he joins his father in harmony, it’s the sound of a man at a hard-won peace: both with the father he longed for, and with his own next act as the wise elder himself.
Release date: February 4
Record label: Republic Records